The Baptism of Our Lord, Epiphany I, 12 January 2020

The Baptism of Our Lord, Epiphany I, 12 January 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
St. Matthew 3:13-17

Background: Ritual Actions signifying Cleansing and Healing in Baptism

In her book on baptism, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity[1] Robin Jensen looks at all the aspects of baptism from its rituals and theological understandings, to its depiction in early Christian works of art. She points out all the biblical events that anticipate baptism, or are symbolic of baptism, and characters in the biblical story who either receive a type of baptism, or who are actually baptized either by John the Baptist, or by later Christians. Such events and individuals include Noah and the Flood, Namaan, the incident at the Reed Sea, the Jordan itself, and the man at the pool at Bethsaida, among several others. It was Luther who took the image of Noah and used it in one of his baptismal rites, the Flutgebet, a prayer based on Noah and the flood, as instructive on the healing nature of baptism. Here is the complete prayer.

Almighty eternal God, Who according to Your righteous judgment condemned the unbelieving world through the flood, and in Your great mercy preserved believing Noah and his family, and Who drowned hardhearted Pharoah with all his host in the Red Sea and led Your people Israel through the same on dry ground, thereby prefiguring this bath of Your baptism, and Who through the baptism of Your dear Child, our Lord Jesus Christ, has consecrated and set apart the Jordan and all water as a salutary flood and a rich and full washing away of sins: We pray through the same Your groundless mercy, that You will graciously behold this N. and bless him with true faith in the Spirit, so that by means of this saving flood all that has been born in him from Adam and of which he himself has added thereto may be drowned in him and engulfed, and that he may be sundered from the number of the unbelieving, preserved dry and secure in the holy ark of Christendom, serve Your name at all times, fervent in spirit and joyful in hope, so that with all believers he may be made worthy to attain eternal life according to Your promise; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[2]

The prayer notes the salvation of Noah and his family and then extends the understanding of the salvific waters as extending to the Jordan and all waters as a “salutary flood” that drowns the sin born from Adam. In the Noah story the appearance of the dove also adds to an understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the sacrament. Actions that underscore this understanding of baptism are immersion in water, which is preceded by exorcism, offering salt (wisdom), renunciation of Satan, blowing on the candidate in the manner of Jesus in John 20, anointing with oil, and after the baptism itself taking on the white garment, and further anointing.

Dr. Jensen’s book is a masterful study of baptism, its background in the culture of the time, and examples of other washings in the Greco-Roman world. If you are interested in studying the complex history of baptism, I highly recommend this volume. 

First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Who is this servant that second Isaiah rejoices in? Some commentators see Cyrus II, the Persian king who freed the Jews and allowed them to return to their homes, but it is probably a designation of Israel that is celebrated here. The gentleness of this servant evidenced in verses 2 and 3, seems to look forward to a gentle and righteous leader, or people, who have learned from the righteousness of YHWH. The gentleness, however, should not be mistaken for weakness, for “he will not grow faint or be crushed.” There is a hint of universalism in the later part of that verse where justice and teaching are not exclusive to Israel, but rather to “the earth” and “the coastlands.”

In verse 5 the acts of creation are recalled, and as a part of that remembrance the covenant is mentioned. Here the covenant is manifested (a fine Epiphany theme) in the very person of the servant. “I have given you as a covenant to the people. What follows are the prophetic promises that detail God’s righteous acts, and hopefully the people’s as well: a light to the nations (that makes its way into Luke’s song for Simeon the Benedictus), giving sight to the blind, releasing prisoners, giving light to those sitting in darkness. 

The “former things” were the exile itself, and the promise here is that that situation is ended and gone. There will be new things. Just as God used the exile to chasten the unfaithful, so God will bring them out of that exile into a new situation, a return to the land, and to YHWH.

Breaking open Isaiah:
1.            What are the “old things” in your life?
2.            What are the “new things” in your life?
3.            How were these new things brought into being?

Psalm 29 Afferte Domino

1      Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, *
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2      Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; *
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
3      The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.
4      The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.
5      The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; *
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
6      He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
7      The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; *
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
8      The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.
9      And in the temple of the Lord *
all are crying, "Glory!"
10    The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; *
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
11    The Lord shall give strength to his people; *
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

The first line of the psalm gives us an indication of the antiquity of the poem, or at least of the ancient inspiration and influence that the poem takes on. Robert Alter, in his translation removes “you gods”, and substitutes “sons of god.” That the psalmist used either an older Canaanite poem as his inspiration, or altered an ancient text doesn’t matter. He is committed to YHWH and celebrates God’s power. In many respects it is a hymn of creation that has consequences in later times. God’s “voice upon the waters” recalls the ancient cosmic chaos that YHWH overcomes. It is the voice, the logos, the word that has agency here in asking all aspects of creation to rejoice and to see God in God’s glory. Here on this day that celebrates the baptism of Jesus, we have a vision of God sitting above the waters, enthroned and giving strength to the people. It is not only the locality of Israel that is encouraged to join in the celebration, but in adjacent regions as well. God is King of the Earth, and gives not only strength to the people, but peace as well.

Breaking open Psalm 29:
1.        How do you listen for God’s voice?
2.        What do you wish to hear?
3.        What have you heard?

Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ--he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

It might be helpful to describe the arc of this story, so that we might appreciate Peter’s sermon, which is our reading today. The story begins with the Vision of Cornelius (10:1-8) who is a believer and who was generous to the Jewish community and who is visited by an angel who sends him to see Peter in Joppa. Next is Peters vision (10:9-23a) in which he sees the net let down from heaven filled with “unclean” animals. Finally there is the meeting with Cornelius (10:23b-33), and finally Peter’s Speech, our reading for today. 

Peter, inspired by the Spirit, and informed by his previous vision begins to understand the situation into which he has been placed. He is a quick study, for he says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Then in almost a creedal formula, he recounts the story of Jesus, but more than that the meaning of the Jesus story. It is a meaning that is not only the property of prophets, or of the chosen people, but of the Gentiles as well. Here is the vital message, ‘that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Breaking open Acts:
  1. What do you believe about Jesus?
  2. Have you told this story to anyone?
  3. Whom have you excluded from your faith?

The Gospel: St. Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

You may want to visit the introductory verses (Matthew 3:1-12) to this pericope, just read in Advent as a preparation to the Nativity. Here we meet not only John the Baptist but his vibrant message as well – the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. People are coming to the Jordan from Jerusalem to hear John’s message and hopefully to repent. Jesus comes as well. John is reluctant, for he understands Jesus mission and purpose, but Jesus is insistent. What follows is his baptism, and what appears to be a deep personal experience of what that baptism meant. Jesus “comes up” from the water, and here we need to understand an ancient antipathy of Israelites to water – it was symbolic and redolent of death. Jesus’ “comes up” just as he will be “raised” by the Father. He sees more. There is the dove and the Spirit that alights upon him, and the voice (go back and look at the psalm). The voice that creates now announces Jesus’ significance, “my Son, the Beloved.” In Matthew this is a deeply personal experience, one that may not have been evident to those standing about him. That notion underscores the difficulty of Jesus’ mission, and for those of us in these latter days, aligned with his mission, our own difficulty as well. Perhaps our prayer on this day ought to be, “O come, Holy Spirit. Alight on us as well.”

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.        When were you baptized?
2.        When have you revisited your baptism?
3.        Which of the promises have you kept?

General Idea:              The Baptismal Servant

Starting Point:            Discovering what is given to Jesus at his Baptism (Gospel)

Next Point:                  The Power of the Word (Psalm)

Next Point:                  The Mission of the Servant (Baptized): (First Reading)

Next Point:                  The Realization of Mission (Second Reading)

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller

[1]        Jensen, R. (2012), Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity – Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 239 pages.
[2]        Luther’s Works, 53:107-108..


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